If you were an NBA fan, a sneaker aficionado, or a television owner in 2007, you probably saw this commercial at least 30 times. This one-minute ad, intended to sell sneakers to the masses, was a seminal moment in NBA history. For Nike, it announced the launch of the Air Force 1 25th anniversary edition. For the NBA, it proclaimed the dawning of a new era. And for the casual or non-fan, it was a wake-up call.
A rooster’s crow set to a Juelz Santana track signaled to everyone who had written off the NBA in the post-Jordan doldrums that it was time to give the Association another chance. These 10 players, walking down an empty airplane runway in white track suits, weren’t so much “The Second Coming” as they were the rebirth of exciting basketball. And at the center of it all were three Phoenix Suns at the peak of their powers. What a moment it was.
After the ’98 lockout, the NBA wasn’t much fun to watch. The league had few transcendent stars, scoring was down, and the game as a whole was floundering in the massive vacuum left by Michael Jordan. Sure, the Lakers three-peated and the Spurs built a dynasty out of fundamental basketball, but that meant nothing to Suns fans. If anything, it made things worse. Then LeBron James entered the fray. His icon status raised the league’s profile. His talent and really the strength of his entire ’03 draft class helped raise the quality of the game. Then the Shaq-Kobe feud in LA gave the NBA some much needed drama. Shaq’s departure and subsequent success with the younger, sexier Dwyane Wade was the NBA’s version of the Aniston-Pitt-Jolie love triangle.
Shaq-Kobe-Wade didn’t sell nearly as many People magazines, but it did make the NBA more interesting to casual fans. The impact of Shaq’s move was ultimately dwarfed, however, by a move with decidedly less publicity: Steve Nash’s move back to Phoenix. Joining forces with Amare, Shawn Marion, and Mike D’Antoni, Nash turned the Suns into the most exciting team the NBA had seen since the Showtime Lakers. It was the SSOL Suns as much as LeBron, Kobe, or anyone else, that ushered in the NBA’s new era. This period put to rest forever the idea that college hoops were “better television” and “better basketball” than the NBA. There’s no basketball fan on the planet, aside from perhaps Bobby Knight, who would rather watch modern NCAA basketball than vintage SSOL Suns.
That’s why it was such a big deal that three Phoenix Suns were featured in this preeminent Nike commercial. The Suns hadn’t won anything, but STAT, The Matrix, and Two Time were the best show in the game. Nike recognized it, and soon the rest of the world took notice. I remember feeling as though my long years of supporting the Suns were somehow legitimized by this commercial. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I could support the Suns without needing to explain how I came to be a fan in the first place. People understood. The Suns were a thing of beauty, and they elevated the entire league with them.
Five and a half years later, the group of players in this TV spot seems comical and random. The title, “The Second Coming” doesn’t help matters at all. First of all, “The Second Coming” lends itself to a group of promising young players, yet everyone except LeBron and CP3 had been in the league at least five years. In truth, this commercial seemed to be filled with geezers rather than young up-and-comers. Remember, Steve Nash and Kobe hadn’t continued to play at a high level well into their mid-to-late 30′s at this point. Both guys were viewed by some as being on the down slope of their careers, though no one would say that now considering how well they’ve played in the seasons since this commercial.
Second, “The Second Coming” conjures images of purity and redemption. That doesn’t exactly vibe with Rasheed Wallace, the NBA career leader in technical fouls received, and Jermaine O’Neal, who was just a season and a half removed from playing a very prominent role in the Malice at the Palace. If the 1992 Dream Team’s intrasquad scrimmage was the greatest basketball game ever played, the pickup game filmed for this commercial must have been the silliest given the 10 players involved. If the players had been allowed to pick sides and play to 21, Nash, Marion, and Stoudemire would have definitely stuck together. Considering the hatred Kobe had for Nash, and the hatred all the Suns had for Parker and the Spurs, it’s safe to say Parker and Kobe would have gladly been on the other team. Paul Pierce would have played for Team Nash, if only to show up Kobe. Jermaine O’Neal would probably have followed him if only to maintain a court-ordered 20-foot distance from Wallace, which wouldn’t have been an issue considering Sheed only ran 3-point line to 3-point line at that stage of his career.
That would have left Team Kobe with Chris Paul, LeBron, and ‘Sheed. It would have been a bizzaro All-Star Game, albeit one to which Adidas and Reebok were not invited. That being said, I would have paid money to watch Nash throw alley-oops to The Matrix and STAT while Rasheed shot dirty looks at the cameraman and Kobe scolded the director because he was getting less screen time than Nash.
Since this commercial first aired, seven of these players have changed teams. Mortal enemies, Nash and Kobe, have become best friends and teammates in the time it takes to drive from Phoenix to LA. Five guys have won titles, and two more, Nash and Chris Paul, are perhaps closer to that goal than they’ve ever been before. One is well out of the league (Sheed), and one is likely on his final go-around (O’Neal).
For all that has happened, these 10 players can still look back at “The Second Coming” and know three things: 1) They were part of the NBA’s resurrection. 2) They laid the foundation upon which the Heat, the Thunder, and every exciting-to-watch team are building their legacy today. 3) They looked awesome in those jumpsuits.